In dark times, it is difficult to see the glow of holiness; blackness covers any speck of light and a sense of gloom is pervasive. This is an all-too-familiar feeling for us in these times. A hasidic perspective on winter darkness may shed some light.
An oft-reported tradition has Rabbi Zvi Hirsh of Żydaczów (1763-1831) declaring that as we enter winter and darkness stretches across the day, the nights are as holy as hol hamoed – the intermediate days of festivals that are bracketed by festive days when no work is permitted at all. Given this designation – continued the Zidichover Rebbe – it is important that every person sanctifies these days and not waste them.
Presumably, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh was viewing Shemini Atzeret–Simhat Torah and the first day of Pesah in a creative way. Outside Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are celebrated as two separate festive days; while in the Holy Land the festival is celebrated on one solitary day. Shemini Atzeret–Simhat Torah is traditionally understood as the finale and closing ceremony of the festivals of the month of Tishrei, while the first day of Pesah opens the next festive season. This perspective also fits the agricultural cycle and the way the festivals are presented in the Bible.
In contrast to this accepted frame, the Zidichover Rebbe was suggesting that Shemini Atzeret–Simhat Torah was the opening bracket, followed by the intermediate days of winter, until the closing bracket of Pesah.
A fascinating perspective indeed, but what did Rabbi Zvi Hirsh of Żydaczów mean when he referred to the winter nights as intermediate days of a festival? Other traditions from hasidic sources add further dimensions that may clarify the meaning.
According to a twentieth-century report, each year at the conclusion of the Tishrei festivals, Rabbi Aharon Rokach of Belz (1880-1957) would wish everyone a gut voch, a good week. At that time, he was already wearing his overcoat and about to head home, yet he would stop and add a few words of encouragement and inspiration before departing.
When offering those parting words, the Belzer Ruv Rabbi Aharon Rokach often mentioned that his saintly predecessor, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh of Żydaczów, would wax on the greatness of the long winter nights, referring to them as “the illuminated winter nights.” Moreover, the Belzer Ruv recounted that Zidichover Rebbe would declare that these dark nights are endowed with the “holiness of the intermediate days of a festival.”
The current rebbe of Skver, Rabbi David Twersky (b. 1940) would often recount that his grandfather Rabbi Yissakhar Dov Rokach of Belz (1852-1926) – father of the aforementioned Rabbi Aharon – was want to say that at the conclusion of festivals business-minded householders would declare: “The Festival is gone, and has left great coldness and empty pockets.” These people were referring to the oncoming winter and the considerable expenses incurred over the festive period.
Rabbi Yissakhar Dov of Belz did not appreciate this viewpoint: “Heaven forfend!” he asserted, “We must not say so, [because] the Festival is not gone! Such ‘holy winter nights’ are coming!” It seems that the festive season was not completely over; while Shemini Atzeret–Simhat Torah had just ended, a different holy period was about to begin – winter nights.
The Skverer Rebbe added the tradition of the Zidichover Rebbe: “Regarding the winter nights, if we sanctify them with what we have to do, then they have the ‘holiness of the intermediate days of festivals.’” In this version of the tradition, the responsibility transfers from an innate and automatic holiness to one that is entrusted to humans to foster. By using winter nights as they should be used, people sanctify this time.
As we saw, Rabbi Aharon Rokach of Belz recounted the Zidichov tradition that the dank winter nights are “illuminated.” Yet as we well know, winter nights are far from illuminated. As we go deeper into the cold months, with each day that passes we feel the darkness encroaching on daylight.
Certainly, this year, with war tragically raging, the oncoming winter already feels cold and dark.
In what way are dark winter nights “illuminated”?
Perhaps Rabbi Zvi Hirsh was referring to the opportunity that night offers. In days of old, the workday spanned daylight hours. Thus, nighttime was an opportunity for diving into the holy texts of our tradition. In this sense, winter nights could be “illuminated” by Torah study, by delving into wisdom, by dedicating ourselves to our heritage.
Indeed, Maimonides writes that even though it is a commandment to study during the day and during the night, people learn most of their wisdom at night. “Therefore,” continued Maimonides, “A person who wants to merit the crown of Torah should be careful with each night and not lose even one them with sleeping and eating and drinking and other such matters. Rather, with Torah study and words of wisdom.” Moreover, Maimonides adds that people who study Torah at night merit to have a strand of kindness bestowed upon them during the day (Maimonides, Laws of Torah Study 3:13).
With electricity and workers’ rights, our workday is no longer bound by daylight hours. Therefore, seasonal winter nights do not have the same significance that they once had. Notwithstanding, the darkness of winter nights and the potential for holiness can still be metaphor for opportunity born from adversity: Even when we are enveloped in gloom, we need to somehow find a way to harness the blackness for growth.
We find ourselves in days that may indeed be “intermediate days” – our lives are disrupted and focus scattered. These days are not joyous days of the festivals. Nonetheless, we hope and pray that these “intermediate days” might serve as a bridge to better times. When the darkness we find ourselves in is considered in this light, we can hope that we may merit to perceive an element of holiness even in the winter darkness.